June’s theme is Grow. This week, the focus is Growing Closer to God and how that affects your health. I did a similar article last year titled, Why Spirituality Needs to be Your #1 Health Habit. This article will dive into some of the chemistry (don’t let that scare you off!) behind why God designed us to be close to him. And what do I mean by chemistry? I’m talking about hormones, neurotransmitters and other chemicals our body makes that govern our health.
I could just say God commands us to stay close to him. Hence the 1st biblical truth I teach, the 1st commandment of the Old Testament, and the Greatest Commandment of the New Testament. But if we dig a little deeper, we know God designed up to be close to him because we don’t feel good when we aren’t.
But I always like to dig deeper, to know the why’s behind something works. Why? So I know the best way to fix something when it’s not working well. It doesn’t do a whole lot of good to keep adding brake fluid to fix the brakes in your car when the actual problem is that the pads need to be replaced – right? Both are needed for the brakes to work, but you have to know exactly what’s not working in order to actually fix the problem. The same goes for our bodies. So let’s dig a little deeper into why we don’t feel well when we don’t feel close to God.
Chemistry & Hormones
It all has to do with chemistry. Particularly our hormones, but other chemicals like neurotransmitters (chemical messengers between nerve and brain cells) too.
When we’re dis-stressed, feeling overwhelmed, angry, frustrated, doubtful, guilty, ashamed, regretful, but mostly the pits of fear, uncertainty and despair we find ourselves in, cause our bodies to produce a cascade of hormones. Specifically, cortisol, adrenaline, glucagon & insulin.
We produce cortisol & adrenaline because our brains are thinking “I gotta run & get us outta here!” or “I gotta gear us up to attack!” That Fight or Flight response, although many of us simply Freeze (like an opossum) as our fears paralyze us into inaction.
These hormones also trigger the body to secrete more glucagon (the hormone that causes our livers to convert fat & proteins (muscle) into sugar (because our cells are going to need that quick energy to run or attack). And the increased sugar in our blood signals the pancreas to secrete insulin to escort the sugar (glucose) into the cells so they can use it for quick energy.
Past vs. Present
Makes sense, right? Our bodies are really intelligent, and this process has helped humans stay alive for thousands of years. The issue is that our bodies are meant to run like this for 20-30 minutes every 3-7 days or so, MAX. However, most of us are running this program most of the time. We’re engulfed in it. Why? (See, another ‘Why?’)
For starters, the news and marketing communities know it. They know our brains are hard-wired to pay attention to something that may harm us. They know the instinct parts of our brain can’t tell the difference between you seeing something happening to others and what’s really happening to you, the viewer, watching or reading about it. That’s why they show it. To keep us engaged. To boost their ratings, keep us watching their shows, expose us to their advertiser’s products. (All the email, social media and text message notifications do the same thing!)
Even if we are physically safe & sound at this very moment, in your home, our brains (that part that triggers the Fight/Flight/Freeze response) don’t know the difference. It thinks we’re smack-dab in the middle of it. It takes mindful effort to engage the front part of our brain and distance ourselves from those stories and say, “That’s good information to know, and I may need to do something about it. But at this very moment, I am safe.”
When we see those stories on TV or social media, our brains are thinking “I’m dying (or going to die) of COVID! The riots are affecting me personally! I’m physically in danger right now & need to do something!” And for the vast majority of us, it is good information to know, but we are not actually in harm’s way – in this very moment.
Cortisol & Health
So what else do these hormones do to our bodies? Well, it shuts down our digestion. We make less stomach acid & digestive enzymes. Sometimes things in the digestive track just really slow down or stop causing gas & constipation. Sometimes our food can just sit in our stomachs. Without the acid to break the food down, the stomach churns and churns and churns to try to manually liquefy it. And in some people, it causes the top of the stomach to open up and some stomach acid gets into the esophagus (tube that connects the troat to the stomach) and they get acid reflux.
Or food runs right through us. Any way you look at it, our bodies aren’t breaking down and absorbing the nutrients it needs to function well. Cravings kick in. We eat more, etc. You get the idea.
Our body also says, “I don’t need to burn extra energy, so I’ll just turn the thyroid hormones down.” Hence, our metabolism slows down, we don’t burn as many calories & we end up storing calories. Thyroid hormones also play a role in digestion.
If you’re fighting or running for your life, you don’t need to worry about reproduction, so reproductive hormones take a dive. Cortisol, estrogen and testosterone are all made from progesterone (our feel good hormone and low levels are associated with severe asthma, allergies and miscarriages among other things). So, when the body thinks it needs to survive, it will use turn all available progesterone into cortisol – leaving our bodies high & dry when they need the other sex hormones.
Blood pressure and pulse also go up so the body can move all the oxygen and nutrients around the body and into the tissues.
And every hormone requires cholesterol. So when we feel threatened, or our blood sugar is high, our livers start cranking out more cholesterol to fix the problem.
Do you see a pattern? Are a lot of things starting to make sense? So what does all this have to do with growing closer to God?
God’s to the Rescue
How do you feel when you pray often? Really connect to God? Not that he ‘fixes’ everything, but do you feel more peace? When we grow closer to God, we can look at things a little more objectively. We can realize that 99.9% of the time, in this very moment, we aren’t in harm’s way. We are safe.
As soon as we realize that, we can start to slow our breath down. And just the act of slowing our breath down, triggers the opposite effect stress & cortisol creates. Hence, we’ve heard for ages to take a deep breath and more recently, the focus on mindfulness, meditation, yoga and focusing on our breath. (And did you know the word spiritus literally means breath?)
Some people still hold this image of God as this fire & brimstone, authoritarian, male figure and praying doesn’t necessarily ‘work’ for them. It scares them or makes them feel even more guilty/ashamed for not ‘measuring up.’
This was my view until a few years ago, too. I ‘knew’ God loves me, but I’d never really felt it. When I started to really look at the Gospels, what Jesus actually taught, and I really stared to connect to God, I found a loving, forgiving parent. Someone who only wants to love us, see us prosper and for us to love him, too.
Connecting to God like this helps us relax. Over time, cortisol, adrenaline, blood sugar, blood pressure, pulse, cholesterol all lower. Our bodies get the signal that it’s safe to digest the food we eat. Female and thyroid hormones balance out and our bodies can do what they are designed to do. We make smarter food choices. We’re able to listen to our bodies and respond with love as we take care of them the way God intended us to.
Does it take time? Yes. Will you need outside support from other health care providers? Maybe. How long and what support will you need? I have no idea, because we are all unique, have been holding on to dis-stress for different amounts of time and respond to stressors differently. I do know that praying often, eating well & moving more are 3 crucial supports most everyone needs to lead a happy, healthy, vibrant life.
Respond vs React
When we grow closer to God, we can take the information we receive and respond appropriately to it. We physically distance ourselves and wash our hands among other things during a pandemic. We empathize, show support and do what we can about racial, ethnic, environmental, economic and social injustices and inequities. But we do all this from a place of rational, peaceful, loving response instead of a knee-jerk reaction that usually just makes things worse.
And what if you’re already feeling pretty good. Like you’re on the other end of the spectrum and you feel like all is right in your world? Give thanks! Add gratitude to your day & watch it go from awesome to awesometastic! Joy Journaling can help you out in this area & I recommend some type of it to almost everyone!
The more you connect to God, the closer you grow to him & let him grow on you, the easier it is to enjoy the journey!
What are you favorite ways to grow closer to God? Let me know in the comments!